The marshmallow experiment 11. June 2015

A psychological experiment by Walter Mischel

Four to five year old children were invited to play a game. They were asked if they wanted to eat a marshmallow now, or wait and as a reward get a second one. Children reacted very differently. To keep it simple, there were two main groups the ” high delayers” who were able to wait a long time without eating the marshmallow and the “low delayers” who could not wait for the reward and ate the marschmallow.

The experiment was designed to measure the ability for self control, however as Mischel showed it actually measured a lot more. Longterm study of the children showed that 10 years later the high delayers could concentrate better, were able to handle their frustration more competently, were more confident and had higher IQ scores than low delayers. Twenty years later the high delayers studied more often, had more stable relationships and were less likely to take drugs than the low delayers.

Selfcontrol seems to be an important aspect of sucess: short term “pain” may be necessary to reap a long-term reward. One could say if a person has the ability for self-control they are free. There are strategies which enable more selfcontrol. If the children were told the marshmallow is not real, they could resist much better- they were able to perceive the marshmallow differently.

How we think about something can change its impact on us. This is an important realisation in psychotherapy.

Reference: Mischel, W.; Shoda, Y.; Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938.

Exercise feels good and changes how we think 10. April 2014

Research has shown that exercise helps combat depression and is almost as effective as taking anti-depressants. It seems that regular exercise triggers mechanisms in the brain, which help the body remain healthy in the longterm.

One theory states when physically active, the level of brain derived neurotropic factor (BNDF) increases in the blood, this protein is often lacking in depressed people. Through this increase alternative neuronal pathways are created, which enable new behaviours:  Unproductive thought patterns often characterising a depression can be given up and replaced by more flexible cognitve processes.

Another research team looked at a healthy individuals and showed that when in movement the motoric cortex is stimulated and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thought and planning is less activated. As a consequence when physically active, we are freeer to think and more receptive to new information.

An accompanying measure for psychological well-being should be a form of physical activity. What you choose should be experienced as pleasurable as that increases the chance of remaining active in the longterm. The more regularly you exercise, the easier it will be to get started.

Food for thought: attachment vs. autonomy 13. December 2013

How does one find a good balance between living relationships and enjoying freedom?How can I fulfill my need for independence without neglecting important relationships?

At the beginning of life relationships are central: Babies need protection, nourishment and reliable and predictable carers. Forming a close attachment to their newborn has utmost priortity for both the parents and the baby. In order to build a relationship to the newborn it is important to spend a lot of time with each other (most parents do this willingly and instinctively). Only by giving their attention can parents learn to understand their child, get a feel for their rhythm, preferences, utterances, likes and dislikes.

But what do we do with our adult needs? Only because we have become a father or a mother, these do not disappear- priorities change but this does not have to mean self-denial. No doubt parents give up some of their personal freedom to donate to “family time”. However this phase is finite and good planning can enable some islands of freedom outside of family duties. One precondition to enjoying freetime away from the baby and the family, is being aware of this need, allowing it and fullfilling it. This will in the long run charge up ones batteries and benefit all relationships.

From the moment of birth the child moves away from the parents and strives to know the world, explore it. Children are only able to do so, if parents allow their children some leeway and trust in their compentence. Equally in adult relationships the topic attachment versus freedom can lead to tension. Most people have too much of one and too little of the other. Either they feel controlled and restrained, or they are in permanent fear of losing their relationship and ending up alone. A stable and happy relationship needs the autonomy of each individual which can be found in a fullfilling job or hobby. However people are only connected to one another, if they know what moves the other- time needs to be reserved for these exchanges. Finding a good balance between attachment and autonomy seems to be one of the most important tasks in life.

Focus on the positive 13. October 2013

In our profession as psychologists and psychotherapists we are consulted by people who are not feeling well. They seek our help in order to feel better. Using psychological methods, we try to understand why the person is suffering and help aleviate their pain, either by them changing their behaviour or adopting a different view point. Often a combination of both is most useful. This procedure has the disadvantage of focusing on negative feelings and occurrences and to remain stuck there. Every person has resources, but they can be forgotten.

The proponents of “positive psychology” (eg. Martin Seligman) bid to strengthen the positive aspects in a person’s life. According to research, three aspects appear important on seeking happiness: joy, engagement and meaning. Joy experienced by getting a massage or buying a new bicycle makes us happy in the short term. Paying attention to the warmth of the sun on ones’ skin, or a child’s laugh are important steps in leading a more joyful life and can be practiced daily.

Being engaged in ones job, daily tasks or relationships as well as seeking and perhaps even finding the bigger meaning in our life, are according to Seligman crucial in leading a fullfilled and happy life. Psychotherapy can help people find their own happiness.

Things worth knowing 22. July 2013

Postnatal depression: who suffers from it, what is it, what can be done about it?

How many women suffer from it?
Experts agree that between 10-20% of all mothers suffer of postnatal depression. If a woman already suffered from depression before birth, the risk of suffering from depression after her child is born is higher.

What is postnatal depression?
Postnatal depression is a form of depression related to the birth of a child (mostly seen in the first 6 weeks after delivery). The depressive illness mostly lasts for weeks if not months. Women are often quite desparate feel unable to cope with their newborn. The most prominent symptomes are irritability, anxiety, lack of concentration, lack of motivation and sleep disturbance. Women also feel extremely guilty as they can not be the mother they would like to be. In extreme cases there is risk of suicide.

Who suffers from it?
The cause of postnatal depression is no doubt a combination of hormonal, social and psychological factors. Women who become postnatallly depressed may be socially disadvantaged, suffer deprivation or be in a difficult partner relationship. Women who experience a traumatic birth or who have a sick child are in danger of becoming postnatally depressed. Some mothers are perfectionists and have always planned their lives, with a newborn, women have to adapt and learn to be flexible. A balance should be found between the needs of the child and the mother – this often takes some time. Irrespective of how well women prepare for the birth and how much they look forward to becoming a mother, there is no guarantee that they will not become postnatally ill. Getting postnatal depression does not mean the pregnancy was not wanted.

However it is sensible to give some thought to who will be there after the birth to support at an emotional and a practical level. Many women think that as soon as they are mothers, they have to concentrate all their energies on their child and neglect their own needs. The baby should have priority, but not all the time. Mothers have to assure that their batteries are recharged regularly.

What can one do about it?
When women realise they have been feeling down and depressed for a while and can’t manage to make themselves feel better, they should confide in someone – their partner, a relative, doctor or midwife. Sometimes just talking helps. In more serious cases professional help such as psychotherapeutic support or antidepressants may be needed. It is important to act quickly, as not only mothers suffer, but also the babies’ have an environment which is not as sensitive and supportive as it could be. Postnatal depression is an illness and not a sign of failure!

Secrets of a happy relationship 10. July 2013

Prof. John Gottman american psychologist and couple therapist has done much research (with his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz- Gottman) concerning the question what makes happy and unhappy relationships. On the basis of the results he has developed a therapy program for couples. According to Gottman couples who see their relationships as happy don’t let the negative thoughts and feelings (which exist in all relationships also the happy ones) smother the positive ones- they have an emotionally intelligent relationship.

Gottman states couples who live in a happy marriage/ relationship have 7 secrets:

  • they are familiar with the world of their partner
  • they cultivate affection and admiration for one another
  • they turn towards each other and not away
  • they let their partner influence them
  • they solve the solvable problems
  • they overcome situations where they are stuck
  • they create joint meaning

The basis of happy relationships is friendship. This is reflected in respect for one another and wanting to spend time together. If couples don’t feel happy any more they may have neglected the friendship aspects of their relationship. Making a conscious effort to focus more on being friends with ones partner may strengthen the relationship. However if this doesn’t improve the relationship, it may be time to seek professional help. People who live in a happy relationship are healthier and live longer than couples whose relationship is unhappy- it seems to be worth it to make an effort.

Research findings 26. June 2013

Meditation helps people to think more clearly, Psychiatry Research, Bostanov V., Keune al.

People who learnt to meditate (using the Mindfulness-Based-Stress Reduction method of Jon Kabat-Zinn) reacted more to acoustic signals in comparison to a control group. Researchers intepreted the results as follows: Having learnt to meditate, test persons wasted less energy with rumination and could concentrate better on the acoustic signals. Test persons also reported that they could think more clearly and were more focussed in their thinking. Meditation changes those brain regions responsible for concentration, attentiveness and memory, the immunsystem also works better and blood pressure is reduced.

Working psychotherapeutically these findings are highly relevant, as meditation (or any other relaxation technique) can contribute to helping depressed patients feel better by reducing their ruminations.